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John Kennedy

Conductor & Composer

“A brilliant, clear account of the harmonically attractive, rhythmically complex score under contemporary music expert John Kennedy... Kennedy's work and that of his musicians was superb.”

Opera News

General Management


John Kennedy’s diverse musical practice centers music as an instrument for individual growth and social change. From 2011 to 2023 Kennedy served as the Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities for Spoleto Festival USA, where he planned and led the Festival’s “highly regarded presentations of music” (The Wall Street Journal). 


Anchored in his commitment to exploring the diversity and possibility of what opera can be, in his role at Spoleto since 2011 he has distinguished the festival’s opera programming with a succession of critically acclaimed premiere productions of new operas. This has included the 2022 world premiere of Rhiannon Giddens’ and Michael Abels’ Omar, the 2018 U.S. Premiere of Liza Lim’s Tree of Codes, the 2015 World Premiere of Huang Ruo’s Paradise Interrupted, as well as U.S. premieres of new operas by many of the leading composers of our time, including Dusapin, Francesconi, Glass, Hosokawa, Lachenmann, Nyman, Rihm, and Saariaho, in collaborations with directors including Phelim McDermott, Ong Keng Sen, Marianne Weems, and Chen Shi-Zheng. In 2022, Kennedy conducted the uS premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Coraline” at West Edge Opera.


During Kennedy’s tenure, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra has developed into the most competitive summer orchestra program in the United States. Conducting it in orchestral programs of wide scope and context, his recent programs have included Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony in a staged performance by Atom Egoyan, and U.S. premieres of works by Louis Andriessen, Michael Gordon, Somei Satoh, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Peteris Vasks, and others. The festival’s culture of presenting music as a living art form with social relevance runs deep, in part thanks to Kennedy’s “Music in Time” series, which has long placed the music of under-represented and young composers in the foreground, with carefully curated and contextualized programs.


Kennedy has conducted a wide range of ensembles across genres, from the Lincoln Center Festival and New York City Ballet, to recent appearances at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts and the Crested Butte Festival, to leading the South Korean premiere of Stravinsky’s complete ballet Pulcinella in a staged version in Daejeon.


Early in his career, Kennedy had the distinction of working closely with John Cage on one of his last tours and recording projects in 1991, to working closely with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Kennedy’s embrace of stylistic and cultural diversity has informed his approach to programming, initiating special projects, and championing neglected and challenging repertoire, such as his prominent role in resurrecting the music of Johanna Beyer.


Kennedy’s musical life has included chapters in New York, Santa Fe, the Bay Area and now Seattle. With a deep understanding of contemporary performance practice from Cage to Lachenmann and beyond, he founded two leading new music ensembles, Essential Music (New York), and Santa Fe New Music – organizations with which he premiered over 300 works – and has conducted some of today’s leading contemporary ensembles including Talea, Ensemble ACJW, sfSound, and Other Minds.

As a composer, Kennedy’s work is focused on music as a form of environmental consciousness. It has been featured worldwide, from the Paris Festival d’Automne, to London’s Wigmore Hall, the Kanagawa Arts Festival, the Grand Teton Festival, the Other Minds Festival, ISCM World New Music Days, Sarasota Opera, and Santa Fe Opera. His monodrama opera One Body was recently presented at the Boston Court theater in Pasadena, sung by Timur. Numerous choreographers have worked with Mr. Kennedy’s music, including Albert Evans in a solo ballet for Peter Boal, and Mr. Boal in a work for Pacific Northwest Ballet which will be revived to open the 2020 PNB digital season.


Originally from Minnesota and a percussionist, he holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory and Northwestern University. He has conducted and taught at the Oberlin Conservatory and Santa Clara University. His diverse range of activity led to his service as artist/composer President of the American Music Center, from 2002-2005. 

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